After two pictures that fused deliberately acerbic British filmmaking with Hollywood stardom, Ben Wheatley returns to his roots with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.
You only have to consider what the original working title was for Wheatley’s film: ‘Colin, You Anus’. When it was announced that Wheatley was producing a brand new picture to be shot over eleven days in a stately home, critics wondered if the director was exploring Shakespeare or the historical period he had so impressed viewers by with A Field in England. Rather than continuing the one-two punch of J G. Ballard adaptation High Rise or the pulpy, Tarantino-baiting Free Fire, Colin sees a return for Wheatley back to stripped down, near documentarian theatrics, the likes of which we haven’t seen him tap for some years.
Where his previous two pictures saw Wheatley rope in Hollywood stars such as Tom Hiddleston, Armie Hammer or Brie Larson, the director here once again recruits the services of Neil Maskell, the lead in Wheatley’s dark, uncompromising and powerfully weird Kill List. Maskell is a prolific British character actor who straddles both TV and cinema but a traditional leading man he is not, and that makes him perfect for the eponymous Colin Burstead. Wheatley’s film is intentionally short, sharp, darkly acerbic and filmed with even more of a televisual, tele-play lens than even Kill List was. This is a director cutting loose and having fun.
You sense that Wheatley, to some degree, is at his most comfortable making films such as Colin. There is an improvisational free form to this character-based tale of a New Year’s Eve family gathering filled with recriminations, histories, bitter out in the open secrets and personal breakdowns which Wheatley very clearly encouraged; indeed while he is credited with the script, so are the cast in general, suggesting Wheatley gave them a starting point and often allowed the impressive cast of seasoned old and young character actors the chance to breathe and inject their own life into these creations.
There are no real stars in Colin which could compromise this free form narrative style. Sam Riley is perhaps the closest thing to a young matinee idol, having essayed various historical icons including Ian Curtis and beat poet Jack Kerouac in previous roles, and despite appearing as the spark which ignites many of the clashes which take place across the story (given he’s the black sheep brother returning to the fold, as a surprise), Riley does not dominate. Even with solid support in the form of actors such as Bill Paterson, Doon Mackichan and Charles Dance, the heart of the picture remains Maskell’s Colin.
Colin is the one who arranges for his working class family (plus some friends and stragglers) to enjoy NYE inside a lavish stately home as a treat for the matriarch, yet almost nobody in truth seems to want to be there. Colin is the one filled with the biggest frustration with his naive, money-driven father, and his handsome cheat of a younger brother who always seems to fall on his feet. Colin is the one who may feel he has chosen the wrong path, and the wrong woman, in life and is relatively powerless to do anything about it. He is a man on the brink of collapse, mirroring the family in general.
Around him, Wheatley crafts an ensemble. Plenty happens without Colin on screen, even if he drives what does exist of a narrative. Each of Wheatley’s characters have their own moments and inflections; whether its Asim Chaudry’s Sham attempting to cope with the loss of the life he had by facing up to who he is, Hannah Squires’ Gini frustrated at her family’s resistance at putting their demons to bed, after being the one who invites the previously ostracised brother David to proceedings, or Dance’s old Bertie hoping to inform his family that he will likely die in the next year; it is wonderful, incidentally, that he is a cross dresser and it is not once drawn attention to – he clearly came out a long time ago, he just *is*, and the family accept that. Beautiful.
In all of these characters, Wheatley paints a portrait with Colin of a family where all of the pain and truth has been laid bare. This isn’t EastEnders, despite the broad Lahndahn brogues of some of the cast (which is multi-ethnic and culturally diverse). This is not a story building to terrible revelations or confrontations on the last night of the year. There are arguments, there are broiling emotions, and there is much left unsaid, but Colin depicts a family where all of the secrets have already been spoken. They are a family already shattered once we enter the story, they’re just pretending—as many families do—because life has to go on.
You can say the same about the house the family gather in itself. Lord Cumberland, played by another Wheatley stalwart Richard Glover, is a harried, friendly inheritor of status if not wealth, and becomes essentially the help and the handyman after he rents the family estate out to pay for costs – we later see he lives in a portable home nearby. While the house stands, there is an emptiness about it, a sense of faded history. This is a Britain that is long past the age of Lords in castles surrounded by peasants satisfying their every whim. This is a Britain, much like the family we focus on, deeply divided, with class and social barriers rent asunder, facing a deeply uncertain future.
This gives Colin a satisfying edge even when there does not seem to be much of a plot and Wheatley’s editing appears so quick and frantic as to almost cut characters off mid-sentence. He wants no fat on the bones of this one. It is a canvas, a slice of life on a key date of the year, with no major resolutions. There is one significant beat of Wheatley-esque, bitter catharsis and it comes from Colin, and it may not be anything you expect. The ending disguises a deep well of anger and misery with a veneer of hope and you’ll be hard pushed to come out the other end of Wheatley’s film believing one night of facing the past can stitch everything together neatly for the future.
Interestingly, going back to the Shakespeare suggestions at the top of this piece, Wheatley told Irish News that certain inspirations for Colin do lie in the Bard:
It came from seeing Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus. I really enjoyed it even though it was such an odd story to me. It’s not typical to our modern structure or even the structure of other Shakespeare plays. It’s not ‘rise and fall’ – the main character sets out to do something and does it, then all the others turn on him because he’s won. I thought that was kind of an interesting upside down version of the ‘hero’s journey’. I started breaking the play down into pieces, one sentence per scene, and then built it back up as Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. So underneath the bonnet of it is Shakespeare, although it probably wouldn’t stand up to academic scrutiny!
This is key to understanding Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, because it may exist as a picture that on first blush is hard to like, and even downright wilfully bleak in its depiction of modern life and family.
In fact, it reflects Ben Wheatley as a writer and director. None of his films feature conventional protagonists. Maskell’s Jay in Kill List is a vicious, verbose assassin. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram in Sightseers are both cheery psychopaths with no moral centre. The aforementioned Hiddleston in High Rise is a doctor who gives himself over to an abhorrent symbol of emerging neoliberalism. Wheatley even directed the first two episodes of Season 8 of Doctor Who, charged with introducing Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, a character who as a raging old man who questioned his very moral virtue served as one of the most uncharacteristic heroes of that series in the modern era.
Wheatley looking to ape the structure of Coriolanus, studying the atypical flip side of the stock Campbellian hero’s journey, is typified in what happens to Colin Burstead across what is otherwise a low budget, at one point even fourth wall breaking picture (Wheatley appears dancing with the characters in the end credits). Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is perhaps an experimental indulgence by a filmmaker who has reached a point where success has given him the scope to quickly make an ensemble character study on the fly, designed to reverse-engineer an inverse look at the stock hero’s journey.
In that sense, while Happy New Year, Colin Burstead may not either be a great film or a great Ben Wheatley film, the fruits this director may bear from what he continues to learn through the process of making it could well pay off in future as he continues to grow as one of British cinema’s defiantly difficult-to-place auteurs.